Why I Believe in Civil Discussion

Just how civil atheists should be in their communication with the religious seems to be a perennial conversation in the atheist blogosphere, though these ideas are applicable much more broadly than just that. Fellow Patheos blogger Dan Fincke, who has long argued in favor of civil discussion, recently called my attention to a study that looked at the effect of online comments on a person’s perception of argument and information. This from Mother Jones:

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

As I’ve said before, this rings very true for my own experience. I like to use young earth creationism as an example when I discuss this. See, I was raised a young earth creationist. In college, after months of arguing the point with a fellow student, I conceded the point and accepted that the evidence actually points to evolution. It was civil discussion that brought me to reconsider my views.

What is the argument generally made in favor of harsher tactics? This comment left on a thread on the topic on Dan’s facebook wall pretty much sums it up, at least in my understanding:

I think there is room for incivility and contempt. Telling somebody that they are an idiot for believing something can have a shock value. What the believers get all their lives is affirmations from their community that they are smart and bright and have the answer. Somebody sneering at them can seriously shake that smug and comfortable belief, and cause them to really examine where their belief came from and whether it is valid or not.

I have some problems with this argument.

For one thing, growing up as an evangelical Christian I was taught to expect those on the outside to hurl ridicule and insult at my beliefs. I was taught to expect persecution. I remember once, in a college class, I made my young earth creationist beliefs known. Several of the students responded with shock and contempt. For his part, the professor swiftly moved class discussion to other matters. The interaction lasted all of a few seconds, but the result was that I felt justified in my beliefs, felt virtuous in having suffered some sense of humiliation for the sake of Jesus (although I honestly didn’t feel humiliated; rather, I rejoiced at having faced persecution for Jesus’ sake). In the end, everything that happened merely confirmed what I had been taught.

But there was someone else, a young man I met in college around the same time I took that class. He was willing to listen to my young earth creationist arguments, and then answer them. He was willing to carefully explain where I went wrong in my understanding of evolution. We struck up a friendship, and we debated the issue for hours, weeks, months. Our friends got quite tired of it. Irreducible complexity, radiocarbon dating, fossils and rock layers. On and on and on. And I listened. And he listened. And I changed my mind.

Well of course, you say. That is because I was willing to listen. Well yes. But why was I so willing to listen? Because, I felt comfortable with him. He never called me stupid. He never mocked me. He never laughed at me. He simply engaged in discussion with me, responding to my points and listening to my responses in turn. I had been taught that those who believed in evolution didn’t have responses to the creationist arguments I grew up on, and that that was why they resorted to mockery. I had also been taught to view unbelievers as unkind and hateful people, and being called an idiot would only have confirmed this. Instead, here was someone actually responding to my points with solid arguments, and without contempt or mockery. This I had not expected. This gave me the room I needed to let down my defenses, consider the arguments, and be willing to change my mind.

There’s a reason Dale Carnegie called his timeless book “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” There’s a reason every talk I ever heard on evangelism focused on first befriending your target. There’s a reason the saying “honey draws more flies than vinegar” was coined. Does this mean we shouldn’t be willing to make a solid case for our beliefs, or that we should let others walk all over our views without responding? No. Does this mean we shouldn’t call out beliefs that are truly hateful and bigoted? No. Does that mean we shouldn’t be confident and assertive? No. It just means that if our goal is to change a person’s mind, the way we do these things matters.

In the end, being the butt of incivility from those on the other side of an issue didn’t “shock” me because I was taught to expect it, and to see it as persecution of my beliefs, and to view myself as a righteous martyr. Furthermore, such attacks merely confirmed for me that those making them were unkind and unhappy people, and that they resorted to insults because they had no actual arguments to make. Finally, when others responded to my beliefs with contempt and incivility my immediate reaction was to become defensive. It was civil discussion devoid of name calling or anger that allowed me to let down my guard and look rationally at my beliefs and the beliefs on the other side.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I am on the side of civil discussion. Oh, and in case you were wondering about that young man who spent so much time discussing evolution with me, his name is Sean. All these years later, he’s sitting beside me on the couch as I write this, our baby Bobby playing in between us. To quote Charlotte Bronte, “reader, I married him.”

As always, feel free to add your thoughts or point out things I might have missed.

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You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://complicatedfeelingsabout.wordpress.com Katherine


    When people argue that incivility and name-calling work, it seems to me that they are fooling themselves. And in the specific case of American atheists, it seems that they really haven’t taken the time to “know the enemy” at all. Every single Christian I have known (from fundamentalists to liberals) was at some point TAUGHT to expect ridicule and unkindness from unbelievers, and taught, as you were, to “rejoice” in it. The only thing that I have ever seen “shock” them into considering the validity of another argument is to see that non-Christians can be kind, non-Christians can be generous, non-Christians can be loving and compassionate.

    Honestly I think the real reason that all the incivility happens has nothing to do with it as a tactic, and everything to do with the emotions of the person being less-than-cvil. It happens, it’s happened to me. SOMETIMES YOU GET ANGRY. When I see someone arguing that there’s no evidence for evolution it’s very easy for me to get upset. It’s even worse when I see someone arguing against feminism. I get angry, and I’ll admit that I have said unkind things because of that anger. But let’s please not confuse our mistakes with reasonable tactics, let’s please not try to convince ourselves that because we sometimes slip up and do these things they must be WORKING.

    Granted, civil discussion doesn’t work most of the time either. People don’t WANT their minds changed. But incivility almost never works, where civil discussion works sometimes.

    • http://kevinsrealm.wordpress.com Kevin S.

      I believe part of the problem is misplaced anger. It’s appropriate to be angry at some of the charlatans of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the Christian Industrial Complex. I’m talking about the people who spin lies in the name of young earth creationism for a living and then repeat those lies long after they’re debunked. Those people will probably never change because their livelihood depends on them believing some ideas and refusing to understand others. It becomes easy to also become angry when you hear their talking points blindly parroted by everyday people who don’t know any better, even though those people are often victims, not villains.

    • Ibis3

      There’s lots of evidence that incivility works sometimes too. I’ve read many accounts of people changing their minds as a result of harsh tactics.

  • Gordon

    I believe your experiences, but mine differ. I was comfortable with my unexamined beliefs until someone was frank with me that they could not believe someone as smart as me believed something so silly.

    They challenged me to read The God Delusion. I was an atheist a few months later.

    One person’s mild scorn and open astonishment opened a door for me.

    • Rosie

      I think there’s a vast difference between calling a *person* stupid and calling an *idea* stupid. The first is definitely incivil; the second…I’m not sure about. Your acquaintance didn’t call you stupid; he or she called you smart but your idea silly. And this gave you the space you needed to make a change.

      • Aaron

        I think you’re right that there is a difference (an extremely important one), but it’s not necessarily easy to perceive the difference when you’re the person with the stupid idea, so from the limited perspective of “target”, it is probably moot.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Definitely agree with this. People aren’t going to feel comfortable enough to question and think and possibly change their beliefs if there’s an atmosphere of hostility and “I told you so.”

  • Kálvin

    Excellent article!

    One reason I enjoy reading your blog and a handful of other atheist/agnostic blogs is because of your civility. You make me think about my beliefs without making me feel stupid.

    Another important thing to remember is that civil discourse can have positive results on people if you don’t succeed in entirely convincing the other person of your position. For example, after reading your (and others’) blogs for several months, my faith is still very strong (maybe even stronger than when I first started reading it), but my positions on several side issues have shifted though. Although I had been slowly moving towards supporting LGBT rights, blogs like yours greatly helped speed up my evolution of thought on the subject. While I still consider myself to be pro-life, you have helped me to understand that just because someone is pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean that they are pro-abortion. There are several other examples that I could use as well.

    • house baelish

      Agreeing wholeheartedly with this. A lot of the atheists I met when I was younger were pretty rude about it. I was probably rude, too. We were kids. But, as I got older and met more mature nonbelievers, I listened with an open mind. I questioned what I believed. I took a good, long, hard, critical look at it. And, in the end, I decided that I still believed, not all, but a lot of it. However, I gained a lot more of an understanding of others’ beliefs and my own in the process. I always try now to be polite and civil, and to not let a disagreement with someone end a friendship. When it comes to civility, there’s really nothing to lose.

    • HelenaTheGrey

      Yep, I have to agree too. I remember feeling totally justified in all my beliefs simply because the other side was so rude and mean. They were “persecuting” me for walking the narrow road, just like the Bible and all my preachers said they would. I am still a believer now, but I feel much freer in my faith and my walk with God now that I no longer harbor hatred and fear against those who are on other sides of the issue. Now that I no longer consider LGBT persons to be evil sinners who need to turn from their wicked ways or face the wrath of hell…now that I no longer have to grieve for the lost souls of all my passed unbelieving friends and family….now that I no longer have to somehow MAKE my living friends and family see the Truth before they die, lest I send them to the pits of hell forever…now that I no longer believe that every woman who has an abortion, nay, every woman who ever enjoyed sex is a slut….I am so much freer to love God and love others around me. I am free to get to know them for who they truly are, not who simply who they have slept or want to sleep with. It is clear why evangelicals teach what they do about those outside the faith…they know once you truly get to know these people outside the controlled environment of the church, you won’t be able to keep believing the lies. What doesn’t make sense is why atheists haven’t figured out that evangelical leaders aren’t quite as stupid as is believed and therefore keep “persecuting” people in the church and thinking it will change their minds.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira

    My own rule of thumb is that an idea should be characterized honestly — if you think it is harmful or foolish, then that’s what you say. But I try to treat people with respect, to refrain from name-calling and sneers and to assume that, at bottom, they have moral concerns that I share, and that they seek the same conditions of happiness that I seek.

  • Lassou

    Completely irrelevant, but as a feminist, if you haven’t already had the opportunity to read it, thought you might find this interesting. Lots of useful information…not really summed up concisely, but a solid read if you have the time. http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2009/10/pdf/awn/a_womans_nation.pdf

  • Donna Gratehouse

    You seem like a decent and honest person who would respond to thoughtful and rational arguments presented in a respectful manner. You may have been poorly informed as a younger person but you were clearly not willfully ignorant. That is the difference. A civil dialogue is simply impossible if one or more parties to it refuses to be honest and operate in good faith.

  • Lane

    The way I see it, you have to make people think that changing their mind was THEIR idea. When I get into discussions with fundies, I try to present sort of tangential, smaller ideas and purposefully avoid spoon-feeding them the “central dogma” of whatever we’re arguing about. To borrow from Christianese, I plant little seeds–seeds of doubt, that is. This is how my own journey went–through hearing little snippets of ideas that formed tiny little cracks and wedges that grew until they couldn’t be ignored anymore. From there, I did my *own* research on the ideas that I had begun to question, and when I ultimately changed my mind, it felt good because it was *my* doing. It’s really important for people to take ownership of their own ideas–no one likes to be told what to believe. Even if they ultimately come to the same exact conclusions you wanted for them from the start, it never works to go for that right out of the gate.

    Also it warms the cockles of my little heart that your hubs is the one that did that for you. :)

  • Charlotte

    On the whole I don’t believe in tone arguments (their usually used against minorities as a way to write off whatever they have to say) but I’m inclined to agree with you on this issue.

    • shortcake

      I was about to address this exact thing, had I not found it in the comments.
      I get tone policed a lot, when I talked about stupid, racist things I hear or see (from people I know or in the media) that make me feel marginalized or disenfranchised.
      Sorry, but I’m not going to be nice, because my hurt makes you uncomfortable. I’m going to be exactly what I feel–hurt and angry.
      My feelings are not the ones that need to change–your terrible behavior needs to change.
      I’ve tried being nice and polite until I’m blue in the face–it doesn’t work.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        For a response to some of these concerns, see this comment.

  • http://truthspew.wordpress.com Truthspew

    I generally dislike Ad Hominem. However once in a great while it’s necessary.

    At a recent marriage equality rally in the RI State House I am clearly heard yelling at one of the opponents saying “Hey Chris, the better part of you dribbled down your mothers leg!”

    Not original, but the red face, and I have it on video, is priceless.

    • Anat

      An insult is not the same as argumentum ad hominem. The ad hominem fallacy means one discounts the opponent’s argument and the opponent’s sincerity in making it based on a characteristic of the opponent rather than their argument (as in ‘you’d obviously say that because you belong to group X’).

      • Aaron

        This is true, but they go along together pretty well, and a statement that would merely be insulting in one context is generally an implicit ad hominem attack in a debate context. “You believe that? You’re an idiot”, is implicitly saying, “Only idiots believe X, you believe X, therefore you are an idiot (corollary : you are wrong, from the definition of ‘idiot’ as ‘someone who is always wrong’)”, which is certainly ad hominem. It’s probably sensible to discuss the two interchangeably in this context.

      • phantomreader42

        “You’re an idiot, therefore you’re wrong” is ad hominem. “You’re wrong, therefore you’re an idiot” is not. The former asserts that an argument must be flawed because of deficiencies in the person making it, without assessing the actual merit of the argument. The latter uses the demonstrated lack of merit of an argument as evidence to claim a deficiency in the person making it. There is a clear difference here, if you think about it, which people who keep whining about ad hominem while not actually bothering to learn what it means never do.

        “All your previous arguments have been shown to be utterly worthless lies, so I don’t feel obligated to take any other argument you make seriously” may be a bit more gray area.

  • Hilary

    This is why I have such respect for you, that you are willing to work through concepts like this. For the most part, I agree with you. The caveot is that there are true assholes out there that no amount of respectful tone or civility will touch, and when someones cherished beliefs are activily detrimental to vulnerable people around them (::cough cough *Pearls* Wa-CHOO::) that needs to be stopped, no apologizes.

    But overall, basic respect can make communication possible that hostility destroys. I’m not going to listen to anyone who is rude, demeaning, hostile or ignorant to my beliefs or experiences in life. But I will listen to someone who believes differently or has had different experiences if they can at least respect me as a human being. And that is something I’ve had to think about reading many of the responses on this blog.

    So many people respond here describing negative experiences with religion, decrying everything connected to any religious experience or belief as poison, dysfunctional, or delusional. Particularly with the “All religion is poisonous and dysfunctional” meme I haven’t responded because I don’t know what to say. It’s not right for me to deny the truth of another person’s experience, but it seems like any acknowledgement of positive religious experience will be shot down as nothing but self-delusion. Overall in my life I’ve had a very good experience with organized religion, religious leaders and belief. I’m still a dues-paying member of the Synagoge I grew up in, happily so because of how much I value being part of that religous community. When I needed them the most, they were there for me. What I’ve finally come to is that no one person’s religous experience negates anothers. My positive religious experience does not negate the reality of someone else’s negative experience, *and their experiece doesn’t negate the reality of mine.* And I’ve had expereinces that I can’t rationalize away, and so have people close to me, enough for me to believe there is more to existence then what is scientifically verifyable.

    I have learned a lot here, Libby you have influenced how I think about faith and non-faith. I’m more willing to stick up for athiests and athiesm, more able to hear how religious language permeates our culture. You can TOTALLY count me as a religious person committed to a secular government and culture.


    • Aaron

      The great thing about reality is that it doesn’t have to be rationalized–it is already rational. Deacon Duncan has a lot to say about it, if you’ve got the stomach for the very precise logical language used (logical in the sense of formal logical argument, not just in the colloquial sense of “rational”): http://freethoughtblogs.com/alethianworldview/2013/01/01/honest-inquiry-vs-rationalization/

    • AnotherOne

      I do agree that civil discourse makes no inroads against some people, but I guess I fail to see incivility making any headway against them either, so it’s hard for me to see why I should contribute to the incivility that’s rife in internet discourse.

      Also, while I may not make any inroads against the Pearls themselves, I’ve actually had some success in persuading friends not to read their books or follow their methods. And that success has come about through civil discourse–through me expressing my concerns politely, but with honesty. In fact, I can’t think of one person among the many people I know who read the Pearls’ books or follow their methods who would be dissuaded by me throwing insults around (much as I might want to). If anything, it would just confirm to them that the Pearls are right, and anyone who disagrees is an evil hellbound heathen.

  • Karen

    Along with another commenter, I too believe it’s essential to distinguish between disagreement on issues and personal attacks. Personal attacks (“I can’t believe you’re foolish enough to believe that”) might work at getting a few people started thinking, but I suspect it just shuts down communication with most others. How did I get to be an atheist? By sincerely, carefully, looking for evidence that wasn’t there. It didn’t happen in a day or a month or even a year. It took a long time. But if challenged about my beliefs during that time, I would not have responded well to personal attacks, and they probably would have set me back on my journey.

  • machintelligence

    I try to be very civil in my comments, but…

    During this discussion Daniel Dennett enunciated the following;-
    Yeah, well I’m amused by it [the accusation that they are "strident or arrogant, or vitriolic, or shrill"], because I went out of my way in my book to address reasonable religious people. And I test-flew the draft with groups of students who were deeply religious. And indeed, the first draft incurred some real anguish. And so I made adjustments and made adjustments. And it didn’t do any good in the end because I still got hammered for being for being rude and aggressive. And I came to realize that it’s a no-win situation. It’s a mug’s game. The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude.
    Nowhere else, from my experience, does something like this happen. “I think you’re wrong” is not an insult or a personal offense… except in religion. I think this is a very important point.

    • Kodie

      That seems to be fair. I guess bloggers might care more than average about opening up topics for discussion and keeping it civil. Maybe they won’t change their minds, but I don’t think that’s my goal either. Just move out of the way. I’m sorry for people who believe they needed to be gently led and etcetera would have set them back, and it’s all our fault for being too harsh. Well, if being stubborn is a virtue now? I don’t know what. There is something to say about being embarrassed for having beliefs too, and if having these things pointed out too bluntly is not the right way, that’s more of a strategy of people interested in having people change their minds. Being embarrassed out of them is another way. If anyone is going to tell me that no one has ever questioned themselves following an insult to their intelligence, I would say that’s a lie. Maybe that doesn’t fly for blog articles and responses that feel the most productive, but I think people are more afraid to lose face publicly than anything else. In the privacy of their own insecurities, they do tend to question themselves unless they are part of a majority so thickly built as to be insulated.

      People in position try to control the rules of who they listen to and when and why and how much. They know they can always find support with their group and never have to be discomforted by a stranger insulting their intelligence without finding reassurance that all their wrongness is still right. It doesn’t matter how you break it to them. It doesn’t help a lot that they are behind a fortress of “we were warned about people like you saying such things to lure us away from Jesus” and an inherent persecution complex.

      I don’t really try to make time to get through all that crap anymore. They make the rules so they can’t change their minds. It’s great that some people do, but pussy-footing around their tender ears is way too much responsibility to approach the built-in willfulness to refuse to listen to anything. I am in favor of embarrassing them into shutting up and getting out of the way. Reasonable people will catch the difference, and unreasonable people can’t be reasoned with until they become reasonable. I’m not here to fix flaws in their character.

    • The_L

      ““I think you’re wrong” is not an insult or a personal offense… except in religion.”

      That depends on the person you’re talking to. I’ve got several relatives who refuse to admit they could ever be wrong, to the extent that if you find direct evidence that they are wrong, they’ll look at what you just told them and suddenly, that’s what they’ve been saying all along. Because otherwise, they’d be wrong, and that simply cannot happen.

      (Also, I’m a bit confused by something. This is the first comment I’ve made here today, but I’m getting the “Hey, slow down with those comments!” error message. Is it because I’ve commented on other Patheos blogs?

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        I think it just bugs out from time to time. I’ve had it pop up when I haven’t made any other comments that day.

      • machintelligence

        I’m glad to see that it isn’t just me. It happens quite frequently.

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

    A few thoughts, which I venture to share because Libby Anne and the commenters here do converse civilly and are willing to listen to other viewpoints.

    I was actually a person who converted from not believing in God, to being a Christian– and I questioned my lack of belief in part because I had been taught that Christians were all stupid idiots who couldn’t think rationally, and then I met some Christians who could, and did, in a quiet and non-attacking way. (I am a theistic evolutionist, btw, so I’m not talking about the young-earth creation issue here at all.)
    On the other hand, after I became a Christian, on some atheist websites I have visited, as I soon as I revealed I was a Christian they stopped hearing anything I said and just went on the attack. I was unable to even tell people on this kind of site that I’m actually a theistic evolutionist, because they had already decided that all Christians are idiots who can’t think rationally, and all Christians therefore are young-earth creationists, so there was no point in actually listening to anything I had to say– and this without my saying anything at all that could have been construed as attacking their beliefs, or lack thereof. In their minds, my coming on their website at all was an invitation to them to have the fun of ridiculing and driving me away. I know that this is not representative of all atheist discussion sites, but this was my experience, and the result was not that I turned around and questioned my beliefs again, but rather that I vowed to stay away from atheist sites in the future unless they were civil ones.

    On one of these sites I was informed that if I felt in the least upset about their personal attack on me, it was because I knew somewhere deep down that they were right and there was no God. Perhaps they were trying to get me to see how wrong it is for Christians to say this sort of thing to atheists– but since they never took the time to find out if I was the type of Christian who would say this to an atheist, the actual result was that I came away from the encounter feeling that irrationality and refusal to listen to the other side is certainly not confined only to Christians.
    I will acknowledge that Machintelligence is right that religion is often the one topic that people take so personally that any civil, critical discussion of it is impossible– but this is not true of all religious people.

    • Makoto

      [Insert irrational attacking response here]

      Sorry, sorry. Anyway, I totally agree, with both you and this article, civil discourse is the way to go. Shock value loses its value when people are expecting, nay hoping for the shock of the angry argument. I know people on both sides who appear to thrive on the possibility that someone is angry at them, and will even intentionally misread posts or statements just to get worked up over them.

      Also, I just have to say I love the ending to this article. Too cute!

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    Libby Anne, for an explanation of why “honey catches more flies than vinegar” you might be interested in reading Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die.

    • Steve

      Literally, that’s not actually true. Vinegar is very good for catching flies

      • Lucreza Borgia

        Especially balsamic!

  • http://eudaimonaiaclaughter.wordpress.com/ Francis

    My rule is quite simple. Do not reach for the insults until it is clear that someone is arguing in bad faith. If they seem to genuinely be honest treat them as someone you want to be at least fairly happy with the outcome of the discussion even if you are going to disagree. If on the other hand they are arguing in bad faith and you are (a) sure of this and (b) can demonstrate it, then tear them apart and leave their arguments highlighted with exactly where the bad faith comes in so that others may see and learn from the example. Because no productive discussion can be had at this point and they might be taking others in.

  • http://eudaimonaiaclaughter.wordpress.com/ Francis

    And on a tangent I believe you actually catch more flies with vinegar (and Google finds multiple actually serious citations of this).

  • Ibis3

    Two things: what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. The problem with most advocates of the civil approach aren’t content to just do what they feel works for them and people like them. They spend half their time (or more) complaining about the tone of the aggressives. Then, instead of both parties directing all their energies toward their goals, it’s sapped up with a pointless internal argument. In other words, be civil, but just leave the firebrands alone.
    Second, yes, there are studies which seem to show an immediate downside to aggressive tactics. Does this surprise anyone? A person’s first response is almost always going to be to get defensive and double down. But I have yet to see any study dealing with long term effects of sustained incivility. There are going to be some people who get a buzz from being a persecuted minority underdog, staving off attacks from the nasty infidels/intellectual elites/whatever and see vindication in it. But there are going to be others who decide that if they’re being attacked on all sides, maybe there’s something to what their opponents are saying, and coming to such a conclusion can take time.

    • Kodie

      Another thing to think of is contrasting a civil approach with an attacking one and just saying attacking approaches don’t work: it could be that the contrast itself works very well in favor of the civil approach. They hear all the tones and pick out which one they are going to listen to. If they think we’re all one way, it doesn’t matter if it’s all civil or all attacking – with nothing to compare it to, and nothing to say – you talk to me like a person, I will hear what you say.

      I also notice since a lot of atheists are former Christians, they might be better angled to be sensitive and hand-holding along the way. I was never a Christian, and therefore do not comprehend why we have to be sensitive to adults who defend heavily the right to have an imaginary friend. It’s somewhat amazing to me that we have to worry about hurting their feelings or why pointing that out is ever too shocking.

      • Kodie

        I kind of didn’t wrap up the first paragraph. Even a civil discussion feels to the person like an attack if there’s nothing more attack-ier to compare it to.

      • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

        Kodie, perhaps I might point out that when considering a conversation about religion with someone who starts with the presupposition that anyone who believes in a diety is nothing more than an “adult who wants the right to have an imaginary friend,” most people who disagree with you are going to say “no thanks.” Why would anyone want to enter a conversation with someone who has already predetermined that they are childish in a way that no adult has any right to be? Is it really so surprising that a theist might wonder why they are not considered worthy of any sensitivity to their feelings about this attitude towards them?

      • Kodie

        I don’t really want them talking to me about their faith anyway for the most part. I’m not exactly comfortable with the idea that we’re supposed to be changing their minds, or the best way to go about it. I’m sure a lot of ex-Christians are glad they did and surreally, become engaged in trying to “save” other people from being Christians – why? Because they know it’s not the smartest. How can you even think of trying to change someone’s mind – the first thing about that necessarily is that you think they’re wrong. I think they’re wrong too. They know we think they are wrong. How are they supposed to feel about that? Nobody likes to be insinuated in any shape or form that they’re wrong, but it’s not a fact that can be ignored when you’re civil.

        I don’t try to talk people out of it, I just don’t feel that I personally have to tolerate space cadets, which is what they are to me. I guess there’s a reason they are, and that’s because they don’t see things any other way. Stubbornness about it doesn’t help me help them in any way.

        All of this exists in a world where they freely talk about how I’m not just wrong, I’m actually going to be eternally punished for not seeing things their way. That deserves scorn, not patience.

  • ako

    I think part of the issue with this is people aren’t really sure where the line of civility is. There are people (either manipulative or inordinately fragile) who declare anything short of what I consider outright coddling to be excessively hurtful and a failure of civility. (I’ve seen people complain about the hurtfulness of stuff like “It’s possible to be good without God”, which is the most innocuous atheist statement I can think of that’s actually asserting anything.) And I’ve seen people declare stuff I’d consider outright cruel to be fair and reasonable discourse.

    As for the rest of this, I’m stuck on points that have been previously discussed. (Other people have described harsh remarks as providing a necessary wake-up call so I’m disinclined to dismiss their effectiveness, creating social stigma around certain opinions can reduce the extent to which oppressed groups are subjected to bigotry while a civil discussion can lend an added air of legitimacy to their side, the civil approach doesn’t tend to help with people arguing in deliberate bad faith, and trying to push civility often leads to people going after their own side for not being nice enough and turn the whole thing into one big ugly energy drain.)

  • Maddie

    Libby, I love your blog, but I’m really uncomfortable with this, particularly the fact that you single out anger as a problem. The reason for that is that I’ve seen the tone troll argument over and over and over and over on dozens of feminist blogs or been given it in conversations, whether or not the conversation has deteriorated into name calling. Any evidence of passion or anger or frustration brings it out. There is always someone popping up saying “oh, if only you would be NICER/CALMER/LESS SHRILL/LESS ANGRY, if only you would STOP CALLING THINGS WHAT THEY ARE and pander to those who disagree with you a little more, then they would totally listen to you” (and, by implication, change their minds). Only…it doesn’t work, at least not with people who don’t even want to have the extended discussion (and there are a LOT of people who don’t want to have that discussion) but will not hesitate use people’s supposed incivility (more on that in a moment) as a way to opt out of it. In an individual discussion, civility may well extend the conversation – though I would argue that it doesn’t do it alone. You and Sean, for instance, obviously liked each other enough to want to continue the discussion and to want to maintain friendly relations regardless of disagreement, and that wouldn’t necessarily work for people who don’t feel liking or friendship for their opponent. At a societal level, at the level where social change (versus individual change) happens what gets attention is noise. What gets attention is not women asking their husbands politely if they would consider voting for changes in law because, hey, we would like some input, it’s women chaining themselves to railings or protesting in the streets. It isn’t atheists asking politely for people to take down Christian prayers from school walls, it’s atheists taking the schools to court. And no, that may not change the minds of the individuals involved, who will probably consider it deeply rude/angry/uncivil, but it will eventually effect social change, and social change will change the minds of generations.

    Back to civility as an opt-out, a lot of people will call incivility on ANYTHING that makes them feel uncomfortable, and anger makes people uncomfortable, especially when it’s anger and disagreement over their deeply held beliefs. Debi Pearl would probably call you uncivil for your CTBHHM deconstructions, not because you’ve called her any names, but because you’ve firmly called her beliefs destructive and irrational. And you’re not wrong about that! They are those things! However, the fact that you haven’t called her any names doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t be personally offended by your words. But I’m fairly sure that the reason you do them is that it isn’t just about Debi, or about you. It’s about the effect she’s having on lots of people who are not in a position to have a discussion of any kind with her, or with you, for that matter. It’s about the fact that her beliefs and those of her husband and others like them are actively harming people. But you’re not being particularly polite to Debi herself, and I doubt that anything you say would convince her.

    You changed your mind, and that’s important. But you were willing to listen, and that wasn’t just because Sean never called you names. It was because you were intellectually curious enough (and liked Sean enough…I wonder if it would have been the same with someone you didn’t actually like that much and didn’t want to spend months talking to) to continue the discussion. A lot of people aren’t willing to listen, and will decree anything they don’t like to be offensive and uncivil, and that conversation is over before it’s begun. But these discussions are not just about individual changes of mind. It’s not even just about the changes of mind for people who are talking or writing, especially online – there are a lot of people reading quietly out there and having their minds changed all the time, in part because of the passion they see. It’s about the changes that happen in society because of these discussions.

    I’m not saying that there should be name-calling or ad hominem attacks, not at all. But I think the civility argument is dangerous, because it suggests that tone is more important than content, and that has been kicking minorities in the ass for a hundred years (and more), and it suggests that it’s more important to have a nice conversation that eventually convinces one person than it is to make changes that affect the lives of people who weren’t able to be involved in the conversation at all.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I absolutely agree with a lot of what you say here. Let me make a couple of points in response.

      1. I think we need to differentiate between calling things like they are and being intentionally mean or going out of your way to be rude about it. For example, “let me explain to you exactly why the comparison you just made between gay people and homosexuality is both completely wrong and incredibly hurtful” is not the same as saying “I can’t believe you just said that, you total piece of filthy shit.” I don’t think my argument is “be nice and treat people with kid gloves.” In fact, I’m inclined to think that refraining from personal attacks and instead finding a way to express civilly just how harmful someone’s beliefs or statements has the potential to be even more powerful than simply resorting to insults. And again, being civil does not mean not confronting, not speaking out, or not challenging harmful beliefs. Far from it.

      2. I also think we need to differentiate between goals, because what actions it makes sense to take if one’s goal is to change another’s mind are not the same actions to take if the goal is to let off steam or marginalize someone. In this post, I’m assuming that the goal is to change minds. I think too often we don’t think about what the goal is in a given interaction or conversation or comment, or about what tactics are most effective to reach that goal, and I think those are things we should be doing.

      3. Next, I’m not saying that anger is wrong. Far from it! I get angry plenty, and I often have damn good reasons for being angry! But I don’t think that anger has to lead to abusive rhetoric, no matter how justified that anger is, and I absolutely anger can be expressed civilly, and that doing so can be very productive. Saying “I think civil discussion is the most effective way to change minds” is not the same as saying “If you want to change someone’s mind you have to stop being angry.” And also, see point 2 regarding goals.

      4. As to your next point, I’d like to see more explanation of exactly why civil discussion disadvantages the marginalized. If we have winning arguments, then why can’t we simply overpower the arguments of the privileged? It seems to me that, if the goal is to change a person’s mind, resorting to personal insults and abusive language risks implying that we don’t actually have good arguments or a case to make. Sure, some people will refuse to listen, why does that imply that civil discussion disadvantages the marginalized? It’s not like those people would magically listen and change their minds if faced with personal attacks instead of rational argument. I’ve often heard people say that the rules of civil discussion are stacked in favor of the privileged, but I’ve never seen a good explanation as to why or how.

      5. I do understand that “tone trolling” can be and is used to discount anything someone is saying. But doesn’t it then follow that if we leave aside the insults and personal attacks and focus instead on making sound arguments, we will have effectively removed a tool the other side has for discrediting us? I mean, we know that it’s the arguments, not the tone, that should matter, but we live in the real world and might as well employ some pragmatism. And sure, plenty of people will still reject what we say, and I’ll readily admit that there are people who will take offense no matter what we say, but I don’t think everyone will and we might at least get some of the people on the margins.

      6. You and some others have said that rather than talking about tactics like this, we should just all use whatever tactics we think best, and that if we talk about which tactics are best or suggest that others’ tactics aren’t good, we waste valuable time arguing among ourselves rather than attacking our opponents. I get that, I really do. But what if some of the tactics we use are doing more harm than good? Wouldn’t we want to know that? If I were fighting a war and saw a fellow soldier aiming her gun such that the bullets, intended for the enemies, ended up going over our heads and hitting our cohorts, it would be my duty to tell her and her duty, upon realizing, to change how she is aiming her gun. I’m not saying I am somehow magically all-knowing regarding which tactics work and which don’t. I’m absolutely not. All I’m saying is that I don’t at all think that talking about our strategy or what approach is best and which are counterproductive is a waste.

      • Maddie

        I think there is a definition problem here regarding what civil discussion actually entails, because what you’re talking about in this comment I have no issue with. I think the problem is that there isn’t really any generally accepted notion of “civil discussion” – a lot of people will take anything that questions their beliefs and assumptions as uncivil. I’m not for throwing personal attacks into the mix either, I just don’t think that that’s the only thing that people think is uncivil. Civility that can include being confronting and challenging is great (and I agree that it’s a real thing) – but I’ve rarely seen someone demanding civility in the middle of an impassioned conversation who actually means “just don’t call me a fucking piece of shit”. They usually mean “calm down, dear, and let the grown ups talk”. Granted, I have not read everything ever, and I’m basing most of this on feminist discussions rather than atheist ones. And also granted, there are some people who do just launch into abuse, but there are a lot of people for whom it is the last resort – they don’t start with abuse, they get there after their patience has been tried intensely.

        3. Next, I’m not saying that anger is wrong.

        Good! But what you said was:

        It was civil discussion devoid of name calling or anger that allowed me to let down my guard and look rationally at my beliefs and the beliefs on the other side.

        Hence my discomfort. You specified the absence of anger – not just abuse – as being what allowed you to change your mind.

        But I don’t think that anger has to lead to abusive rhetoric, no matter how justified that anger is, and I absolutely anger can be expressed civilly, and that doing so can be very productive.

        I absolutely agree, but I don’t think everyone does – and the more embedded people are in certain kinds of thought, the less likely they are to appreciate the difference. I had this problem all the time as a new feminist, trying to talk to my father about some of the new thoughts I’d been having. Now, my father was a very thoughtful man, but he was also a Christian minister, and he had some ideas that I really didn’t agree with, and the conversation got derailed every single time, not because my arguments weren’t any good (though they weren’t as well developed then as they would be now), but because I was angry and he would raise that as a distraction point, the implication being that because I was angry (and because feminists were angry generally) my thoughts (and theirs) didn’t count. The problem was, that wouldn’t make me less angry, it would just make me frustrated and MORE angry, and while I was angry, I think he was the one who was uncivil, because he wasn’t listening to what I said, only to how I said it. And he wasn’t bothering to find out WHY I was angry, it was enough that I was angry. Part of the frustration is that you can’t create a civil discussion all by yourself.

        As to your next point, I’d like to see more explanation of exactly why civil discussion disadvantages the marginalized. If we have winning arguments, then why can’t we simply overpower the arguments of the privileged?

        Well, again, I think the definition of civil discussion is something we’re not really agreed on – or at least, while WE might agree on what a civil discussion is, the people with whom we might be having the kind of discussion that would degenerate into UNcivil discussion often, in my experience, don’t share that view. I haven’t had disagreements over these kind of things with people whose idea of civil discussion ends at “no abuse”. They often also want “no anger, no challenging questions that don’t accept my assumptions, extra respect for my beliefs”, and anything less qualifies as uncivil.

        It’s not like those people would magically listen and change their minds if faced with personal attacks instead of rational argument. I’ve often heard people say that the rules of civil discussion are stacked in favor of the privileged, but I’ve never seen a good explanation as to why or how.

        I think they are stacked in favour of the privileged because the issues of non-privilege under discussion are often ones which the privileged have less emotional investment in, in one sense. It was very easy for my dad to dismiss what I was saying because of my anger – because he wasn’t angry about whatever it was. His assumptions meant that he was perfectly comfortable in his assumed rightness, and these issues did not affect his life directly. No one was ignoring him in bible study because he was a girl. He could therefore continue to use a nice, calm tone, and be gently condescending. And this is where we get into the actual tone issue, because people will take TONE to be uncivil, where tone is often related to emotion. If people are privileged, they usually haven’t invested loads of time and emotion in being privileged. They can assume that their privilege is natural, and therefore needs no emotional or intellectual defence. Now, don’t get me wrong, many privileged people become very angry when they perceive their privilege being eroded, but they generally don’t get to that point just in a discussion. Therefore, they are able to maintain the fiction that THEY have remained civil, THEY have remained polite, and their opponent has gotten upset and angry, and therefore they win. It’s kind of like Godwin’s Law, only it’s “the person who gets angry automatically loses the argument”. People with privilege have the luxury of not getting emotional because they are not immediately affected by the problem. People WITHOUT it are more likely to get angry because they are constantly affected by it, then they have these horrible discussions in which people are blind to their privilege and it makes them MORE angry, and because they’re angry, they are often dismissed.

        I’ve actually got an awesome example of this, yay me. There was a recent discussion on Australian television which got into same sex marriage (amongst other things). There’s an excellent summary here. If you read that through, you’ll see that our privileged bishop was smiling and calm, even though he spoke a great deal more than his opponents, and therefore was widely commended for being a gentleman. One of his opponents, although she actually said a great deal LESS than he did, became understandably upset, and was widely criticised and abused herself because of it. She wasn’t abusive, she was just upset, and with good reason. But for the very reason that she was upset, both the bishop and much of the audience concluded that she was the rude one who dominated the conversation.

        I do understand that “tone trolling” can be and is used to discount anything someone is saying. But doesn’t it then follow that if we leave aside the insults and personal attacks and focus instead on making sound arguments, we will have effectively removed a tool the other side has for discrediting us? I mean, we know that it’s the arguments, not the tone, that should matter, but we live in the real world and might as well employ some pragmatism.

        This is nice in theory, but it doesn’t always work. And again, insults and personal attacks are not what I’m referring to. When people tone troll, it’s usually not because the discussion has STARTED with abuse. It’s because it has started with ANGER, and that isn’t, apparently, civil enough. And you know, it’s not always possible to control emotions, or the physiological responses that come with them, when we’re talking about things that deeply affect us and our lives. I mean, I’m a crier. If I’m getting angry or upset, there will be tears, there will be a cracking voice, there will be a raised voice. I work to prevent that, and I have awesome arguments even when I’m crying, but it doesn’t always work. In the real world, people get angry – and the privileged often have the luxury of not getting angry because they don’t have to care. And then they have the luxury of dismissing the angry one because, hey, emotions and reason don’t go together.

        You and some others have said that rather than talking about tactics like this, we should just all use whatever tactics we think best, and that if we talk about which tactics are best or suggest that others’ tactics aren’t good, we waste valuable time arguing among ourselves rather than attacking our opponents.

        I didn’t say that. I haven’t read all the comments, so I don’t know who did, but it wasn’t me. I wouldn’t be getting into it if I thought that. Every group argues amongst themselves, and sometimes that is useful. But I’m not convinced that the soldier allegory is a good one, because bullets generally only hit one person. One thing I’ve seen a number of times recently is people delurking to comment on the fact that they have been reading these conversations, but not participating, and the strength of people’s arguments plus passion has been convincing to them. The person argued against may not be convinced, but bystanders, more than one of them, may be. Measuring harm and good purely in terms of the actual opponents in the discussion, especially online, may not be sufficient.

        I think, really, we don’t disagree on the fundamental thing – I don’t think abuse is a good idea (though I completely understand getting to it when you’ve been beating your head against a brick wall, and I can’t really argue with that either), but there’s a wide gap in people’s understandings of what a civil discussion is, and I don’t think it’s been clearly defined here. If you just mean no abuse and no personal attacks, that’s one thing, but when people are accused of incivility, that is often not what is meant at all, and simply calling for civil discussion doesn’t specify what that means and gets us into tone territory, in which anyone can be dismissed because their voice isn’t calm enough, no matter what their words actually are.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        There’s a wide gap in people’s understandings of what a civil discussion is, and I don’t think it’s been clearly defined here.

        I agree. I was speaking especially of personal attacks and abuse, but the question of just what “civil discussion is” does bear fleshing out. I tend to define it a la my comment policy:

        1. Attack arguments rather than people. In this vein, refrain from personal insults and avoid needless vulgarity.
        2. Engage other commenters in good faith and with the goal of understanding. In other words, no trolling and no proselytizing.

  • Rosie

    It seems like I’m hearing some people say, “why bother trying to be civil, when we’ll just be accused of incivility anyway?” And it’s true that being actually civil while not playing doormat will sometimes garner accusations of incivility. However, from what I’ve seen reading the internets, a civilly presented and well-supported argument is a powerful persuader, and that power is in no way reduced by a response that accuses it of being uncivil. In fact, it makes the accuser look rather worse than the original argument.

    • AnotherOne

      yes, this.

  • Aaron

    I feel like the biggest conflict, a frustration for which is well-demonstrated in these comments, is in finding the line where things are no longer civil. You have a group of people who are firmly committed to always being polite, even if that means softening the truth of their stance in order to accommodate more sensitive ears. You have another group of people who wish to always call a horse a horse, but are firmly committed to making sure that the ideas are what’s being attacked, and not people. Then you have a group of people who have determined that the other side is pulling out all the stops, so it only makes sense to engage with the same terms, in order to be taken seriously as being passionate. And there are lines in there that are easy to muddy–how easy is it, really, to consistently say, “Your beliefs are nutty,” without either accidentally putting in a little ad hominem, or even simply being misinterpreted that way? And there really is a privilege hurdle to get across–as much as anyone holding silly beliefs would be the first to tell you that they’d be way more likely to listen if the other side were reasonable, being human, it is difficult to simply that that person at his or her word. We all (hopefully) STRIVE to be reasonable, but the human is not a rational animal, at least, not without training.

    I think, for myself, that it is important to show that passion and firmness don’t necessarily override reason. If I can eloquently lay out an argument and assiduously stay out of ad hominem territory, then I feel like that is a better victory (it certainly feels more difficult to achieve than the alternative, as if I’ve willingly solved a puzzle with a handicap :) ). And for personal reasons, I’d rather never be seen as shrill, over-reactive, or non-rational. But my personal preference doesn’t guarantee that everyone should be the same way. Sometimes, screaming at the top of your lungs really does communicate passion in a way that no amount of even prose can. Other times, you really need to co-exist with a group of people who believe in something absolutely ridiculous, and some accommodation is in order. Like I’ve mentioned other times on this blog, I don’t feel like any of those tactics is necessarily worse for the atheist movement as a whole, because even negative experiences, when it comes down to it, will put an argument on the map, and I feel that it is better for the cause to be known and disliked than it is to be completely unknown (especially given the size of the atheist population).

    Now that that groundwork is laid, here is my real point: the real key to everything atheist is that actually striving to believe what reality reflects will eventually cause peoples’ beliefs to naturally coalesce into a similar worldview. That is the benefit of believing in reality–experimental determination is repeatable, and the resulting knowledge is transferable. Atheism is close to unique among the “religious” preferences in that it, as a philosophy, welcomes criticism and change, not just in the inconsequential bits that make it up, but in its totality, all the way down to core precepts (even if some of its naturally human “adherents” will fail to recognize that from time to time). The job of atheists, then, is the same job that (for example) Evangelicals pay lip service too–to get people to learn about the knowledge they have, and then relying on that knowledge to carry itself since, being true, it will naturally persuade even people who have made other assumptions before in the face of its inevitability. The difference between the Evangelical and atheist approaches is that the atheist doesn’t really care if the people being talked at have been exposed to other ideas, whereas Evangelicalism will constantly tut-tut at the mainstream for “corrupting” their youth with “ungodly” ideas. This is for the same reason that truth does not care: Truth is truth, whether or not a particular human believes it.

    So, tl; dr: If we are really committed to serving truth, then we will not mind that we are perceived as ornery, because the truth will win. We may (or may not) be more effective in the short-term by being seen as mostly reasonable and polite, but as long as we remember the essential fact that we strive for truth, and just as firmly believe we are correct as we know that we will change our belief the instant evidence is presented that contradicts it, we will have served our goal, even if a more fine-grained strategical overlook may exist that will give the ideas a quicker penetration.

  • Aimee

    I think most of the effectiveness of ruthless arguments are when the target isn’t the individual being attacked, even if they might share views. By that I mean an author in a book can tear up arguments or public figures and that can be persuasive to a reader who originally disagreed with the author, or a debate between two people that gets “uncivil” (whatever that is defined as) can still help convince some viewers.

    But one on one, an attacking strategy is unlikely to convince the person you are talking to – which may not be the point anyhow as it seems that strategy usually is meant for those watching who are on the fence. Also I would agree that a person does not have a responsibility to spend the time and energy walking every person they speak to through their incorrect ideas and educate them. It is nice to do if you can, but certainly not required.

    However I don’t see this post as saying atheists shouldn’t ever be uncivil, just that if the main goal is persuasion it may not be a good tactic. Self expression, or when talking to someone who is obviously never going to change their minds (at least publicly -Craig or Ken Ham for example) tone is essentially irrelevant.

  • Sophie

    I always try to be civil when I talk to people I disagree with but sometimes I do lose my temper and use sarcasm or say something insulting. When that does happen, afterwards I feel awful and I feel that my behaviour has most likely weakened if not destroyed my original civil points.

    I do have to agree with some other commenters that atheists can be dogmatic as Christians when it comes to expressing their beliefs. I believe in God but don’t identify with any particular religion, and I’ve been attacked for that belief numerous times. And usually I get attacked because of the beliefs held by some Christians, which I do not hold and actually find extremely offensive.

  • phantomreader42

    My problem with calls for “civility” is that every time I’ve heard them, they are always, always, ALWAYS one-sided. Christians can get away with claiming my life is pointless, insisting that their imaginary friend is the only acceptable source of morality, declaring that the voices in their heads know more about science than people who’ve spent their lives studying it, demanding that I be forced by law to adhere to their sick dogma, falsely accusing me of murder, and even threatening to burn me alive forever, but the instant I so much as whisper a single word of disagreement, somehow I’m the rude one? Christians break the law, engage in slander, libel, and terrorist threats, but somehow I’m the mean one for calling them on it.

    Lying is not civil. And yet, somehow, christians can get away with constant, blatant, shameless lying, while whining about how horribly MEAN I’m being for reminding them that that imaginary god of theirs is supposed to have some sort of problem with bearing false witness. Threats are not civil, but when christians make threats, or use arguments entirely founded on threats (Pascal’s wager), any criticism for doing so is dismissed as insufficiently civil. Pointing out that lies and threats are not civil is denounced as yet another unforgivable act of rudeness on the part of the targets of those lies and threats.

    If I am perfectly polite and civil, christians will slander me, threaten me, babble incoherent nonsense, demand infinite respect while offering me none, and whine about how rude I am for not instantly kneeling before them and licking their boots. If I call things like I see them and call the lying sacks of shit such to their faces, christians will slander me, threaten me, babble incoherent nonsense, demand infinite respect while offering me none, and whine about how rude I am for not instantly kneeling before them and licking their boots.

    I’ve tried being civil. It doesn’t work. It’s more fun to hold up a mirror to their own vile behavior, and beat them about the head with it. I’m STILL vastly more polite and respectful to the religious than they are to me (not that that’s hard).

    • Kodie

      That’s pretty much all I was trying to say. A lot of Christians have no idea how insulting they are. Two wrongs don’t make a right though. Basically, I don’t really need to hear about Jesus so if that’s what they want to talk about, I think changing the subject is ok. If they insist on changing it back, then I can definitely say that’s rude. I have heard of Jesus, and I don’t call them stupid, but no I’m not going to hell since hell doesn’t exist. I’m not really arguing my point in a case like that that’s not on a blog, I’m not having a “civil discussion” about what we believe and try to change each other’s mind. I don’t think it’s that rude to simply deny what they’ve said is true and I don’t have to prove it to them. I thought we were all entitled to our opinions, and I’m doing my best to respect theirs. When we disagree – that means I think you’re wrong. How else to escape saying that in some way?

      A while ago on Christian Piatt’s blog, also on Patheos, he made a series of lists of things Christians should stop saying to people. So (1) someone is trying to train them to be more thoughtful about the words and clichés that come out of their mouths and what they sound like to someone who doesn’t believe them, and (2), while many people appreciated it, a lot of responses called it censorship. Censorship. I.e., they’re not about to stop evangelizing just because it makes some people uncomfortable. Their goal in life is to not give a crap whether or not some people are uncomfortable hearing the “truth” as they see it, at any time they feel like blurting and bleating; they don’t care if it’s at an insensitive time or place; that is not their problem – they are just doing what Jesus told them to do, which is hurt people with their platitudes, fail to comfort them with basic social skills, etc.

  • Christine

    Perhaps a guideline for what civil discussion, in this case is, is that comments should be addressed not to the evangelicals and fundamentalists, but to regular Christians. If it seems inappropriate to say to someone who’s not being offensive or easily offended and isn’t trying to shove their religion in your face, then maybe it doesn’t work.

  • Carys Birch

    I find both sides abusive most of the time. I’d probably have come out of Christianity much sooner if I hadn’t been so relentlessly abused every time I looked for information. The Fundy culture I grew up in had me so well brainwashed, I didn’t know how to phrase my tentative inquiries in any way that didn’t immediately give me away as a Christian, and no mater how sincerely seeking you are, a Christian poking their head into MOST online atheist spaces is going to receive a few new orifices.

    I don’t want to get into tone policing because I know I take a harsh tone myself sometimes, especially about things I feel passionately about. But at the same time, I look at my culture-shocked, genuinely searching for answers, terrified abuse survivor, younger self, and I wish someone could have treated me gently.

    • Kodie

      I don’t know about MOST. MOST Christians who visit are evangelizing, not asking questions. They are baiting and trolling and following up answers with a script about their “worldview”, avoiding to answer any questions, and trying to control the rules of debate – what arguments atheists are allowed to use, or insisting we all agree to a false premise of theirs before we’re allowed to talk about it. Maybe they honestly don’t know where the error or disrespect is in all that – they’re trying to win souls and expect to be persecuted and run out on a rail.

      A Christian who has questions about atheism because they’re honestly curious will stand out. And I say this from a few years posting on one of the more unforgiving spaces on Patheos. The impatience goes way up quickly when people are so obviously full of BS their posts are brown. I would not even classify more than 10% of low BS tolerance – many even give the benefit of the doubt for weeks going around and around. You can see how that’s not productive if the person isn’t really there to get information. Besides that, I would advise any honestly curious Christian to read more and post less, because your answer is on the internet somewhere. If you’re afraid of being treated like a hostile intruder, you can still read all the articles, and if your question still isn’t answered, at least you’ve done your netiquette and lurked.